'90s Pop Singer Gina Tan Almost Said No To Playing Zhang Zetong's Mother in Slow Dancing: "Hello, Do I Look That Old?"

The one-time model-singer is currently starring alongside Zhang Zetong and Tay Ying in the Mediacorp English drama 'Slow Dancing'.

It’s exactly 10 years this week that 8 DAYS — back when we were a physical publication — spoke to Gina Tan.

If you’re a music fan of a certain age, Gina Tan is remembered as a teen model — discovered by Jazreel Low, no less — who became a pop singer mentored by Tracy Huang. At age 18, she released her debut album, You Are So Beautiful, Sister, in 1994. The following year, she added acting to CV when she starred alongside Chen Hanwei and Ann Kok in the Morning Express II. Alas, her pop career didn’t last long: her sophomore album, out in 1996, tanked and she quit the entertainment scene not soon after and settled down for family life. 

At the end of that 8 DAYS pow-wow, Gina, then a homemaker and a mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, said she was jonesing for another go at showbiz.

gina tan 2011 interview data
Back in the day: Gina Tan was featured in 8 DAYS' Whatever Happened To...' column (issue 1060, Feb 9, 2011). 

Then something happened after the interview: nothing. Well, at least on the showbiz front. There’s a reason for the radio silence: Gina had her second child, a son, in 2012. That kept her busy until one fateful event in 2017 (more of that in a while) set her on the path of a comeback.

But this time around, Gina, now 46, is doing more acting than singing. Her credits thus far include Lion Mums, Last Madame, True Lies, Loving You, as well as the Golden Horse Award-winning Number 1. Gina’s latest is the meWATCH limited series Slow Dancing. She plays the domineering mother of a blind billionaire (Star Search 2019 winner Zhang Zetong) trying to get in the way of his son’s complicated romance with his caretaker (Tay Ying).

So where shall we begin, Gina?

On her comeback…

It all happened in 2017 at a Chinese New Year gathering at celeb hairstylist David Gan’s place where Love 972 DJ Dennis Chew asked Gina if she were keen to appear on his morning show and chat about her showbiz heyday.

“Huh? Me? What’s there to know about me? Boring lah!” Gina recalls. But after much urging from Zoe Tay, Gina decided to give it a go. “It happened on March 8, which was also International Women’s Day,” she says.

The on-air chat with Dennis, Mark Lee, Marcus Chin and Chen Biyu went swimmingly and the next thing she knew, Gina found herself covering Cai Bilian, who was away on maternity leave, as Jian Wen’s partner on Evening Drive Time.

“It was overwhelming because I didn’t know what I can or cannot talk about,” Gina on her three-month guest stint. “They just threw me in the deep but it was fun.” And the rest is history.

gina tan love 972
Radio gaga: Gina with Love 972 presenters Mark Lee, Marcus Chin and Dennis Chew. “[After that show], Mark said, ‘Next time come back, we can work together’”, says Gina They would later team up on the Golden Horse Award-winning dramedy ‘Number 1’ where she plays the wife who’s unaware that her husband works in a drag club after being retrenched. 

On acting again…

Gina and Mark teamed up again the following year — this time in front of the camera work for the dramedy feature Number 1, where she played the missus of Mark’s retrenched exec-turned-drag queen husband.

Though the movie wrapped in September 2018, it wasn’t released until October 2020. In the interim, she accepted gigs on the small screen (notably the working mothers dramedy series Lion Mums), where she’s frequently cast as the stern and cold matriarch not unlike the one in Number 1.

gina tan number 1
Caught in the act: Gina with Mark Lee in 'Number 1'. Gina says it was “scary” to act again, more than two decades her appearance on ‘Morning Express II’. She credits director Ong Kuo-Sin (“he gave very clear instructions”) and Mark for easing her into the work. The latter,  she says, "is amazing — patient and supportive. He was no longer the local beng; he’s matured into a gentleman. He gave me a lot of assurances.”  

“The producers thought with my built, height and gravitas, I could play the main antagonist,” Gina on her Lion Mums alter-ego, Mrs Wang. 

Despite being typecast, she’s still grateful for the opportunities given to “a newcomer” like her. Occasionally, she would have people walking up to her and said, ‘Hey, Gina, I love your Mrs Wang’ — they might not like the character but they praised my acting skills.” She must be doing something right.

Even her 13-year-old daughter, Paige, and nine-year-old son, Pius — whom she shares with her husband, "a general manager in the cleaning industry” — are curious about mummy’s roles. “They asked me, ‘Why are you always acting the bad person?’ I said to them, ‘Let this be a good reminder to not be this kind of people, right?’”

Is Gina a Tiger Mum in real life? Far from it, she says. “Only with my voice, not in action,” she explains. “I’ll nag a lot at them until they feel, ‘Aiyah, mummy’s nagging is no longer effective anymore.”

gina tan last madame
Yes, Madame: Gina had a cameo in the award-winning ‘Last Madame’ (see episode 3) where she got to wear a long-sleeve cheongsam. “I love the Madam Mao character,” she says. “It was something fun and playful and I got to get away from the usual strict, always scolding character.” She would love to sink her teeth in a period piece like ‘Love in the Imperial Palace: “I think my features can pull it off.”

On Slow Dancing… 

In Slow Dancing, Gina is once again called upon to play — you guessed it — a stern and cold matriarch — this time as 26-year-old Zhang Zetong’s on-screen mother.

What?! My son is 20-plus! Hello, do I look that old?!”, says Gina, who wasn’t too keen on the part at first. So what changed her mind?

“I am actually playing a millionaire and I can still look good,” she quips. Besides, she figured that if Angelina Jolie can play Colin Farrell’s mother in Alexander, perhaps she can pull it off as well. (FYI: Jolie was 29 and Farrell was 28 then.) 

Working with the younger actors forced Gina to bring her A-game. “One thing that impressed me was that they don’t bring their script on set,” she observes. “Like Tay Ying, she did her homework very well. Every time she was with me, I didn’t see her script.” Gina subsequently did the same as well: “It challenged me to make sure that I know my lines.”

Did Zetong and Tay Ying know anything about Gina’s pop music past? “Kinda…we shared [info] along the way,” says Gina who bonded with her co-stars over meals during production.

“They are all upcoming stars,” she adds. “I wish them all the best. Let’s hope Slow Dancing will take them to the next level.”

gina tan slow dancing
Dance hall days: On ‘Slow Dancing’, Gina was reunited with her ‘Number 1’ director Ong Kuo-Sin. “I like working with Kuo-Sin because he can bring out what he wants from my character; I can relate very well to him. ” She’s also grateful to the team of make-up artists. “Even though I am an old mum, I can still be a beautiful old mum,” she says, a laugh.

On her showbiz past…

Looking back, does Gina feel bitter about her brief pop reign? “Honestly, I don’t know where I would end up if I were to sign with [with a different record label],” she laments. “Maybe I would be more successful? Then I might not have met my family and have two beautiful kids. Everything happened for a reason. What I should do now is to look at my past achievements, not my past mistakes.”

gina tan first album data
What if… Gina’s first album, 'You Are So Beautiful, Sister', released in 1994. Gina said she didn’t aspire to be a model or a singer growing up. “I wanted to be a lawyer or a cop,” she said.  A cop? “I watched too many Hongkong dramas when I was much younger!”  

Will Gina encourage her kids to pursue a showbiz career? “My daughter can sing and dance,” she says. “She has a nice voice. Would I let her enter showbiz? Only if she’s talent-scouted. I will not encourage her to actually pursue it on her own.

gina tan children
Pride and joy: Gina with her children, Paige, 13, and Pius, nine. She said they only learnt about her former pop career a few years ago. “When I was very active volunteering at their schools, there were some parents who recognised me. They didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything because it was all in the past,” she says. “When my girl came back from school, ‘Hey, mummy, my friend said you were a model, a singer before. Is it true?’ Okay, I think she’s old enough to understand. I took my portfolio, the albums, and say, ‘So this is me the last time.’”

“This industry is cruel. It’s highly competitive. It can be a scary place for someone without a strong mind and heart. Look at the suicide cases in the K-pop scene. It’s sad to see [lives wrecked by] social media. In the meantime, my daughter should just focus on her studies and enjoy her life as a normal teenager.”

gina tan morning express ii
Blast from the past: Gina in a scene with Chen Hanwei in ‘Morning Express II’. “After I shot that series, they offered me other dramas,” she recalls. But back then, I was flying back and forth between Singapore and Japan, so my availability was difficult to schedule. In the end they stopped looking for me.”

On what’s next for her…

Right now, Gina, like any other actor, is patiently waiting on the lookout for the next role. “Just don’t make me play someone in her 50s — because I still want to act someone in her 30s or 40s”, says the freelancer who recently parted ways with talent agency Beam Artistes. 

As long as the part doesn’t require her to be the “fierce and aloof kind”, she’s up for it. “To all the production houses, directors and scriptwriters, please let me show off my demure and gentle side," she pleads. 

Elsewhere, she also hopes to jumpstart her singing career. “I still enjoy singing and I still have my voice,” she says.

Is there a Mediacorp leading man she would like to share scenes with?

“My last single — from the soundtrack of Number 1 — was written by Amos Teo, the boss of Hark Music, and Desmond Tan is actually one of Hark Music’s shareholders,” says Gina. “Desmond enjoys singing and he said he enjoys my singing as well. As an actor, I thought he’s grown over the years. When he played [serial killer] Derek Ho in Code of Law, he was very good! I think it’ll be nice to work with him.”

Hopefully, she doesn’t play his mum, right? Says Gina: “If I play his mum, I don’t want to act already! I’ll reject it… joking, joking.”

Desmond Tan, are you reading this?

Slow Dancing is now streaming on meWATCH; it’s also on Channel 5, Tuesday, 9.30pm. Morning Express II is on Netflix. Following Gina on Instagram at @gina618.​​​​​​​

Photos: Gina Tan, MM2 Entertainment 

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